Estars as a platform is definitely the future of Esports. Jeff Liboon, the Co-Founder and President of Estars, talks about how he came up with his business idea, all the amazing things they have at their Las Vegas studio, and how to handle failure and to use frugality as a catalyst for creativity. Jeff explains how they are incorporating traditional to present esports concepts and how they get sponsorships on their games. He describes the kinds of sponsors they are attracting and why this is so much more engaging for them to put their money on versus simply running a commercial on a football game.
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Estars – The Future of Esports with Jeff Liboon
Our guest is Jeff Liboon who is the Cofounder and President for Estars. He’s responsible for product and business development, including the creation of the World Showdown of ESports, which is known as WSOE and managing white-label production growth and investments. Estars is an interactive eSports engagement platform that’s launching in Q3 2019. They’re going to provide a viewing experience for eSports fans around the world. He has several years of gaming experience, working with top-rated platforms like Amazon’s App Store, Xbox Live and several top mobile gaming developers in the eSports industry. Before that, he helped create the Amazon mobile eSports team and grew that to eight figures in one year. While at Amazon, he conceptualized and executed the very successful Mobile Masters and Champions of Fire eSports events. He’s been doing a lot of things in social media where he led product development and marketing for DoubleDown and Casino IGT. Jeff, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me, John. I appreciate you.
I am fascinated to hear your own story of origin. Take us back to your childhood or your college days of your first initial interest in gaming or in anything to do with where you are.
My story around my career and professional growth are interesting. A lot of entrepreneurs can probably say the same thing. I was drawn to the entrepreneurial spirit. From a very early age, for some reason, I thought about business a little bit differently. We’re thinking about, for example, starting a lemonade stand. That interested me when I was a very young boy. I was always figuring out ways to, for all intents and purposes, make money. That was always something that I found fun and I was always drawn to. When you start to look at my career as I went to college and even in high school, I was always looking for ways to exercise that entrepreneurial spirit versus getting a normal 9 to 5 job that could make me money in a more traditional way. That meant starting small businesses in high school, whether that was selling basketball cards. All the way through college, we were always looking for ideas and ways with my friend group to figure out small businesses and little hustles here and there to avoid getting that normal 9 to 5 job. A lot of those failed and you learn some things.
I always ended up looking for ways to do that. From a learning and growth perspective, a lot of those lessons rolled over to what we’re doing now. In terms of being an entrepreneur, we hear that a lot. It’s being positive and being able to push forward. I’m dealing with frugality and building successful businesses through bootstrapping and things like that. All of that stuff had an infrastructure that was set when I was young. It’s a very interesting thing. When I was thinking about coming out of college and what I wanted to get into, gaming was something that was always super fun and super entertaining. When we’re sitting around taking the college example, I always knew that gaming was something that I wanted to get into. If you think about how I thought about things, being in my career, it was centered a lot on marketing specifically, but you could go and market anything. You can market cars. You can market used car lots and almost any product in the world, but gaming was always something that was fun. I looked at it as, “Why wouldn’t I do something and get into something that I found enjoyment out of?” That was my first step as to what why I wanted to jump headfirst in gaming way back to the late 2000s.
All my friends that have young boys at home that want to play and spend all their free time gaming, there’s hope that it could be turned into a career.
There is a lot of hope. It’s a newer industry. I’m in my mid-30s but my parents don’t understand what I do on a daily basis. The industry is so young. When you look at like, “Mom, I make a living with producing eSports events or,” back when I was at Xbox on Amazon, “pushing game sales,” they don’t understand it. Traditionally, they think of it as a time-waster. I don’t blame them for that. It is a newer industry that people are starting to even come to understand now. In my core group, I grew up with Xbox and the first Nintendo. Most people, my age and younger, have grown up with that as a staple of popular culture and as an entertainment medium. Now, that’s completely normal that my son loves Fortnite. I don’t think of it as a time-waster. It’s like going to the movies and watching TV. My parents considered it as a normal way to entertain yourself.
In the eSports space, we start to look at if you told my parents that people were playing this playing games for high stakes and a lot of money as a skill-based activity almost like football, basketball or baseball, that would go so far with their heads. They wouldn’t understand a word I was saying. They would think it was ridiculous. I guarantee you with my son’s kids, my grandchildren are sitting in the largest stadiums in North America playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of people watching around the world. That’s not necessarily going to be our generation. They’re not going to understand that. My son is going to think it’s a completely normal activity. It’s interesting to see how this industry is developing over time and how big it’s getting.
You mentioned two words that I’m fascinated with. One is working in startups and business at the beginning is dealing with failure and also frugality. Do you think there are any lessons learned in entrepreneurship that people can learn playing eSports games that are either around failure to teach a little bit of resilience? I know there are a lot of people who buy things for the games. Do they have to be smart on having a limited budget? Do they learn any frugality lessons playing these games?
I worked at Amazon for almost four years. It opened my eyes specifically around how to treat business. They think of it very differently. Even if you look at how people from traditional Fortune 500 companies looked at how Amazon was running their business in early 2010, I think the knock on Amazon on the street and everywhere else is they don’t make money. Nobody really understood that they were investing so much in infrastructure and into different verticals that would pay dividends now. At any point, they could have turned off the faucet and turn down the R&D and stopped investing in new industries. They were getting knocked on a lot by not turning huge profits immediately. Can anybody argue with their stuff? Probably not.When you don't throw money at a problem, it causes creativity. Click To Tweet
One of the core tenets that they love to build around is frugality. It’s where when you don’t throw money at the problem, you tend to find solutions and get much more creative in that respect to find a long-term solution. I believe that is a core principle of being a successful entrepreneur. Before you throw money at something, can you figure out a way to do it without that money? You wrap your brain and sit down and think about that. If you continually put yourself through that test as an entrepreneur, it seems like you will find a lot of solutions that you would never have thought of unless you were put in that situation and frugality right in front of your eyes.
When you don’t throw money at a problem, it causes creativity.
I try to use that in all my businesses. Let’s say, I had $0 to throw at this problem. What would I do? You start there as a baseline and you seem to come up with a lot of different solutions that you would have never thought of if you had a bunch of dollars. In terms of the frugality piece in gaming and gamers in the eSports world, it’s applying right now at a macro level at the industry where everything is so fragmented. In the industry itself, there are so many different moving parts to it. There are a lot of different fragmented ways, a lot of people who make money. Whether it’s meant to do this or not, but the industry is taking this frugal approach to each of these fragmented sectors and figuring out how to build a sustainable business, which is a cool thing to see.
At a high level, the developers have a lot of the power because they own the IPs to all these games. All of the services and the third parties around it is trying to figure out how to make a successful business around this fast-growing and cool entertainment medium. They‘re being frugal and smart in terms of how they can build a sustainable business, which is a cool thing to see. You’ll see creative ways in terms of how people are displaying data, for example. There are some companies out there that are taking in-game data and doing cool things with it, whether that’s with production or broadcast, betting or additional site content.
There are some cool things that are happening there. That’s one example. You even see ways in an industry like sponsorship and advertising. As traditional sports have decades of experience in how to provide value back to an advertiser, an industry like eSports is trying to figure that out right now. There’s a lot of ingenuity, creativity and things that are pulling from traditional sports, trying to apply them to eSports but it doesn’t quite fit all the way. It’s not Apple to Apple with a traditional sports community but people are trying to figure out how they make that work as well in terms of value, both on ROI for advertisers and also community and content. That’s sitting out there. The cool thing is there’s a lot of VC money coming into the eSports industry. I wouldn’t say it’s overloaded yet in terms of how fast the industry is growing already. A lot of companies are being frugal and trying to figure out new creative ways. They’re not just throwing money at the problem which is figuring out how to build a sustainable business.
Let’s talk about what your business is and how you make money. You’re the premier competitive gaming production company in the world. You not only provide the production, but you also offer people a chance to sponsor these events in person. It’s not, “This is just somebody playing a game. This is an actual event.” For those people who maybe haven’t been to an event, can you describe the sponsors you’re attracting and why this is so much more engaging for them to put their money here versus running a commercial on a football game or whatever?
I’ll quickly run through our core main business pillars that we have between Estars, the platform and Estars Studios, which is our production arm. What we have in our portfolio a white-label business. The world’s top game developers will write us a check. We’ll run their eSports events from A to Z. That can be everything from broadcasting, production, stage design, all the way through lead operations, talent management and player management and all of it. We have a large array of the top gaming companies and platforms in the world that we service multimillion-dollar business.
Give us a sense of how many people typically show up in an event like this. Is it like being in a football stadium?
It depends. We’ve done events at this point in LA that had over 3,000, 4,000 people to it. Our own studio holds about 200 people. It depends on what the developer is looking for, the look and the feel you want to do. Traditionally, when you turn on the TV and you see all the excitement around eSports, you’ll see shops from Korea, Asia, China and Europe where eSports is significantly further down the path and much more mature versus in North America. There are tens of thousands of people that show up to some of those events. North America is probably three to five years behind that in general but there are varying degrees of eSports competition and crowds that come in. It’s the beauty of it. There’s excitement that you can generate out at eSports online between two players playing a game online or two players in a room. You can take it to a stadium and have it in front of tens of thousands of people and feel the energy. That’s a pretty unique thing.
If I compare it to people watching chess champions, for example or people coming to watch live sports as they know. This is eSports. The passion is the same if not more from what I’ve seen for this. Would you agree that it’s the same or more? If so, what makes people so passionate about this?Failure and frugality have valuable lessons. Click To Tweet
I would say that gaming in general has some of the most passionate and rabid fan bases in any genre that you could possibly find. It’s a function of how engaging some of the content is and how much fun people have in playing some of these games. If you turn it around, it’s almost like finding the most passionate football fans for example.
They wear the colors on their face and paint their face.
The thing about football is the games only run on one day of the week. Their outlet is one day of the week. ESports and gaming, in general, go 24/7. You can imagine having a rabid Seahawks fan have a game they can jump into 365 days out of the year 24/7.
With my background in advertising, the secret sauce is emotional engagement for advertisers, whether it’s the commercials emotionally engaging or there’s product placement that makes you part of a movie. You’re offering this at a whole new level, this emotional rabid fans as you describe them. Their emotions are already revved up. Is this particular target mostly male at this point?
Yeah. I think the last time, I saw it’s roughly 70% male, 18 to 24. However, I do think that what we’ve seen, the female audience is growing quickly. It’s a testament to a lot of big game developers making an effort to make gaming much more accessible. An environment for women to participate in the community is much more accessible, which is awesome. My assumption is as time goes on, it’s going to skew back towards probably a 50/50 type community in all of gaming. If you look at something like mobile games, which skews significantly towards women, I think that will cross over to PC and console as time goes on because it will normalize out based on population and accessibility and all of those things. Right now, it’s skewing towards the younger males.
That’s a very difficult audience for advertisers to reach because TV tends to skew female. You have a great niche for companies targeting automotive sales or electronics.
With the advertising background, you can appreciate it. You can even see the strategy. I saw a study that said of the four major sports, football, basketball, baseball and NHL, in North America, most of those ages, the median age, is 38, 39 or 40. When you look at what the NBA is trying to do with the eSports, look at it like, “I have this demographic that’s around 38, 39. I can use my eSports league.” There’s a lot of hoopla around the NBA 2K League, which is my assumption is that in the next few years, every NBA team will have a joining NBA eSports team. That’s an NBA 2K League. I can use that league as a way to tie the advertisers to buy the overall package of the NBA. Now, I broadcast digital. That skews older but now I have this group that I can sell for 18 to 24-year-old males. I can sell advertising on that with the eSports league.
That’s the dream audience for a lot of movies like Star Trek and Star Wars. That’s the target that goes to the movies multiple times and they love it. Have you done any sponsorships of particular movies yet?
Not yet, but we’re working hard on that. We’re working to solidify some partnerships there. We love trying to find the right movie-type trailer partner because of the evergreen nature of that content. There’s always a new movie coming out. They always want to reach a younger male audience. There’s always a piece of that marketing budget that’s going toward that in most instances. We love that. We’re looking for the right partner in that respect where it makes sense to integrate into our own offerings. It includes the WSOE in our owned and operated league.
You made the decision to rebrand ESP gaming into Estars. What was the genesis of that?The industry in general is taking this frugal approach to fragmented sectors and figuring out how to build a sustainable business. Click To Tweet
We have a production business. In the background, we’ve been building an engagement platform. Estars is the actual platform. The idea of Estars as a platform, I call it as a second screen experience that takes a lot of what traditionally we would say are gambling mechanics or put it in a free to play space that’s unique to our content and our partner’s content. We always knew that we wanted to have a product that was out in the eSports that we felt added value to the viewing experience. If you look at eSports concept, the two main ways to monetize is sponsorships and distribution. What we’re trying to figure out and what a lot of people are trying to figure out are other ways to monetize all the millions of eyeballs that are tuning into this content outside of the traditional way to do it.
We feel that interactive engagement, which is the viewer either actively engaging with that content that we’re creating and/or accepting content that’s being created in real-time are two very distinct ways that eSports as an entertainment medium where it makes a lot of sense for us to take a look and see in terms of investments. If there’s anything unique and creative we can come up with, which we do feel we’ve done with Estars. That was always going to be our big bet. We kept that under wraps for a while. Now it’s out in the wild. With that, the genesis was we initially had launched our production company under the name of ESP Gaming. It made a lot more sense to align the companies, both on the production side and the platform side. We didn’t have to build two brands. We knew that all of our ESP stars studios content would try to encompass Estars as the platform as riding shotgun with all of that content anyway and then vice versa. It made a lot of sense to almost make the companies parallel and build one large brand that encompasses what we envisioned in terms of the viewing experience for eSports.
It reminds me a little bit of your previous employer. Amazon was known for selling books and now they’re known for producing content and selling all kinds of things. It’s an interesting thing. Your Estars Studio is based in Vegas and you have Emmy-winning producers there. To me that begs the question, “How, if at all, do you see this fitting into Apple and Google, competing with Netflix and all of these this huge demand for content?” It seems that you would be producing content that would either be on one of those platforms or have your own channel on one of those platforms. Is that in the future?
We’ve invested heavily in the talent on our production side. We do have fifteen Emmy’s on staff who have won in various live sports. They come from varying degrees of gaming companies as well as MMA companies, as well as live sports and production companies. We invested heavily on that. The main reason is we wanted to differentiate the view of our content on everybody else in eSports that we’re producing, which is hardcore traditional five-gamers or four-gamers type content. We are looking to expand who can consume our content and find it entertaining. Our strategy was like, “Let’s find that’s in the business who do see eSports as the next frontier and combine all of these genres and industries into one high-powered team and go from there.
What you’ll see from us over the next few months is that we’ll start to utilize the team we put into place. That means we’ll keep continuing to run our owned and operated league. The WSOE is what we feel is the best eSports content out in the wild. We’ll continue to do that. You’ll start to see us start creating content that is new and unique that nobody in gaming has done. That could be documentary in the vein of 30 for 30 on ESPN. That could be movies or content that is competitive but not the traditional eSports competitive. That could be talk shows or anything.
Do you have your own acronym? Instead of calling people broadcasters, you just call them casters. How do you get to be in the top ten? That’s a show waiting to happen. How does somebody become that in the competition? It’s almost like watching somebody at a live auction.
That’s all content that we would be in a very tough position to produce without the studio you referenced in Las Vegas. It’s located in Aria. We share it with our sister company Poker Central, which produces The World Series of Poker for ESPN. They also operate the PokerGO OTT app, which is the Netflix of poker that’s out there. We have this beautiful studio in the heart of this strip where we can produce this content 24/7. It’s a unique advantage that we have and we’re very lucky to have it versus any other sports company in the world.
Is it open to the public for tours?
It is open when we’re filming. You can come and check it out whenever we’re filming either poker or eSports. Whenever you’re down, I’d love to have you.
You’re in the right spot. I come to Vegas quite a bit, giving keynote talks. How can people participate? Everything from going to your website and playing the games to coming to Vegas to watch something being filmed and to if somebody says, “Can I invest in your company? Are you on the stock market?” Give us the whole range of all the opportunities that readers can say, “I want to get into this world. I want to be part of what Jeff’s vision is.”
The easiest way to see what we’re doing is to check out some of the content we created. You can see any of our content on Twitch.com/WSOE. You can see a lot of the stuff we’re doing there. We’ve also signed a bunch of linear television distribution deals. You start to see a lot of our stuff running on traditional broadcast television. What you also start to see in the back half of this year is us with a renewed focus around grassroots type community tournaments. We’re running an event at the end of July featuring the game of Tekken. The cool and unique thing around that is we’re having a lot of live qualifier in California. You can qualify in that specific tournament. If you qualify, you get a free trip to Vegas where you can compete in WFF7 and for the $30,000 prize pool that we’re offering for that live on Twitch. You get all of that cool recognition and experience. The other cool thing on what we’re doing with that is it’s a qualifier for the Olympics. We partnered with the United States eSports Federation and we’re offering that as a qualifier in. That’s a cool thing that we’re doing as well. You’re going to see a lot of online tournaments that we’re trying to put together that will be much more in volume. You can think about how the WSOE relates to the UFC. Our monthly WSOE are like the UFC Pay-Per-View. They’re really big.
This is global. The WSOE is the World Showdown of Esports.
It’s global with really large event series. These tournaments and these communities are operating 24/7. We’re trying to show up in the back half of the year with some of our content schedule is figure out how we service those communities. How we get those people who are playing for fun and are skilled to a stage like the WSOE in the center of the Strip at the Aria playing in front of millions of people online. How do we get them there? We’re trying to figure out programs to do that. It’s almost like in the vein of the UFC. It’s like Dana White’s Contender Series or Ultimate Fighter. How do we take those people who have the skill set? How do we get them into the bright lights and the main stage of Vegas? We’re working on some concepts there. They’ll start to see us develop all of that stuff in the backend and figure out the next phase of how the WSOE will grow.
You remind me of a young Richard Branson and what Elon Musk is doing. You have big visions and big global impacts and it’s been wonderful hearing your vision, expertise and uniquely qualified background to execute this vision. Congratulations on all your success. It’s going to be fun cheering you and Estars on.
Thanks, John. I appreciate the time.
- World Showdown of ESports
- Estars Studios
- Poker Central
- United States eSports Federation
About Jeff Liboon
Jeff Liboon, Co-Founder and President for Estars, is responsible for product and business development, including the creation of the World Showdown of Esports (WSOE) and managing white-label production growth and investments.
Estars is an interactive esports engagement platform set to launch in Q3 2019, which will provide a new viewing experience for esports fans around the world.
Jeff Liboon has more than 10 years of gaming experience working with top-rated platforms like Amazon App Store, Xbox Live and several top 10 mobile game developers in the esports industry. Prior to his current role, Liboon helped create the Amazon mobile esports team and grew attributed revenue to eight figures in one year. While at Amazon, he also conceptualized and executed the very successful Mobile Masters and Champions of Fire esports events.
Liboon also led product marketing for skill games at DoubleDown Casino/IGT Interactive, including Poker, Video Poker, Bingo and Blackjack, and managed the content management and advertising operations teams at Popcap Games (EA) for several top 25 Facebook and mobile games including Bejeweled Blitz, Zuma Blitz and Plants vs. Zombies.
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